NEW YORK - The New York Police Department collected information on businesses owned by second- and third-generation Americans specifically because they were Muslims, according to newly obtained secret documents. They show in the clearest terms yet that police were monitoring people based on religion, despite statements from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the contrary.
The police department has faced criticism from Muslims, lawmakers, and even the FBI for widespread spying operations that put entire neighborhoods under surveillance. Police put the names of innocent people in secret files and monitored the mosques, student groups, and businesses that make up the Muslim landscape of the northeastern United States.
Bloomberg has defended his department’s efforts, saying they have kept the city safe, were legal, and were not based on religion.
“We don’t stop to think about the religion,’’ Bloomberg said at a news conference in August after the Associated Press began revealing the spying. “We stop to think about the threats and focus our efforts there.’’
But in late 2007, plainclothes officers in the department’s secretive Demographics Unit were assigned to investigate the region’s Syrian population. Police photographed businesses and eavesdropped at lunch counters and inside grocery stores and pastry shops. The resulting document listed no threat. And though most people of Syrian heritage living in the area were Jewish, Jews were excluded from the monitoring.
“This report will focus on the smaller Muslim community,’’ the report said.
Similarly, police excluded the city’s sizable Coptic Christian population when photographing, monitoring, and eavesdropping on Egyptian businesses in 2007, according to the police files.
“This report does not represent the Coptic Egyptian community and is merely an insight into the Muslim Egyptian community of New York City,’’ the police department wrote.
Many under surveillance were American-born citizens whose families have been here for the better part of a century.
“The majority of Syrians encountered by members of the Demographics Unit are second- or even third-generation Syrian Americans,’’ the Syrian report said. “It is unusual to encounter a first generation or new arrival Syrian in New York City.’’
The Demographics Unit was conceived in secret years ago as a way to identify communities where terrorists might hide and spot potential problems early. If the plainclothes officers, known as “rakers,’’ overheard anti-American sentiment or violent rhetoric, they flagged it for follow-up investigation.
If police, for example, received a tip that an Egyptian terrorist was plotting an attack, investigators looking for him would have the entire community already on file. They would know where he was likely to pray, who might rent him a cheap room, where he would find a convenient Internet cafe, and where he probably would buy his groceries.
As a result, many people were put into police files, not for criminal activities but because they were part of daily life in their neighborhoods. Shopkeepers were named in police files, their ethnicities listed. Muslim college students who attended a rafting trip or discussed upcoming religious lectures on campus were cataloged. Worshipers arriving at mosques were photographed and had their license plate numbers collected by police.
The Demographics Unit is one example of how, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the police department has transformed itself into one of the most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies in the country, operating with little oversight and in areas outside the city such as New Jersey.
Speaking Friday, Bloomberg said: “We’re doing the right thing. We will continue to do the right thing. We do take every precaution possible to not do anything that ever violates the law. You’ve just got to be very careful not to take away the rights that we’re trying to protect.’’
And although civil rights lawyers disagree, the legal question is not expected to be settled soon. In the meantime, the police department has become a flashpoint in the debate over the balance between civil rights and security.
US Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress on Thursday he was disturbed by what he has read about the police department’s surveillance of mosques and Islamic student organizations in New Jersey. “And these are things that are under review at the Justice Department,’’ he said.
Police said they cannot afford to become complacent or ignore the reality that Islamic terrorists carried out the 2001 attacks and others.
But if Muslim neighborhoods feel unfairly singled out, it could reinforce the perception that the United States is at war with Islam, which Al Qaeda has used as a major recruiting pitch.
Since the AP began reporting on these efforts last year, Bloomberg and the police department have offered varying explanations for the clandestine efforts.
At first, police spokesman Paul Browne denied the Demographics Unit existed. When documents proved that it did, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said his department only follows investigative leads.
For instance, after Moroccans were involved in terrorist attacks overseas, the police department photographed and eavesdropped in New York businesses where Moroccans might work, shop, and eat.
Asked during a City Council meeting in October whether the police department maintained similar documents for Irish and Greek neighborhoods, Kelly replied: “We don’t do it ethnically. We do it geographically.’’